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Deacon pioneers ‘global learning’

Alex Plum in Nepal

The first in a series on The Journey of the Deacon. The Rev. Alex Plum says, “We are connectors, seeking to extend the sacramental table, through our hands and feet into a hurt and broken world.”

ALEX PLUM
Deacon, Michigan Conference

When Jesus needed to get his listeners’ attention, he brought up the Samaritans. Vilified in Jewish society, Jesus extolled their virtues in John 4. His interaction with the woman at the well gave permission to his disciples in Acts 8 to go and confirm Samaritan followers of the Way who other apostles had previously baptized. The eponymous Good Samaritan proved that some valuable lessons could only be learned by looking outside the narrow frames of our culture and upbringing. Going beyond our self-imposed boundaries to share God’s love and offer hope in the name of Jesus is the imperative of every Christian.

Alex Plum in Kenya
Rev. Alex Plum (center) visiting a rural clinic in Homa Bay, Kenya started by Afya Research Africa, which provides seed money to local women’s groups to start cooperative clinics. Residents pay what they can afford to receive subsidized healthcare while building wealth through local ownership of the clinic.

The term “global learning” captures the essence of what Jesus was modeling for his followers. As a Deacon, a big part of my call to ordained ministry has been to put “global learning” into practice. Deacons are often thought of as bridge builders between the church and the world. We are connectors, seeking to extend the sacramental table through our hands and feet into a hurt and broken world. Through our ministries, we witness to a powerful hope embodied in Jesus Christ. My particular ministry witnesses to Christ’s healing power, whether that health is physical, spiritual, mental, or emotional, and regardless of whether our healing comes in this life or the life to come.

After college, I had the great fortune to serve as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in the island nation of Micronesia. When I completed my service, one of the first visits I made was to my mentor, the late Rev. Terry Gladstone. One of the first Deacons ordained in Michigan, Terry encouraged me to be an authentic witness to God’s love – however that expressed itself. After working and studying in several countries, I found an opportunity to pioneer the practice of “global learning” in the field of healthcare at Henry Ford Health System in Detroit.

My team and I identify promising models of care delivery in low- and middle-income countries, and we adapt those approaches for implementation in the US. In line with God’s preferential option for the poor, the projects my team leads focus on reducing health inequities in historically marginalized populations in low-income US communities.

Key to our approach has been establishing reciprocal relationships with the communities and organizations who inspired us with their good ideas. One important partner is located on the other side of the world in Kathmandu, Nepal. Their leadership to improve mental health has helped inspire how we deploy community health workers to help our Detroit patients who are struggling with anxiety, loneliness, depression, and other moderate mental illnesses.

Alex Plum in Rwanda
Rev. Alex Plum (left) with Harvard medical anthropologist and global health leader Dr. Paul Farmer (second from left) at the opening of a new medical school in Rwanda affiliated with his nongovernmental organization, Partners in Health. Also pictured is Rwanda’s former Minister of Health, Dr. Agnes Binagwaho (third from right). Rwandan organizations are helping Henry Ford learn to promote hope and reduce burnout among physicians who serve women and children.

Global learning and exchange have improved health outcomes in US communities, brought resources to support the original ideators, and empowered vulnerable populations around the world. This is exactly what the church is called to do – and who the church is called to be. As a Deacon, I am set apart for servant leadership to help Michigan United Methodists find authentic ways to build bridges with communities near and far, to learn and inspire one another, and to share God’s love in transformational ways.

The Samaritans showed us that unexpected people and places can often have a better understanding of what it means to live as Christ taught us. Deacons like me are called to help the church find those people and places so that, together, we can be transformed more in Christ’s likeness.

~ all photos courtesy of Alex Plum